Don’t Fear the Hand-Cut Dovetail (Part 1)
For the first time, a modern master reveals every step of his system
Synopsis: If you’re looking for expert advice on dovetails, you can’t go wrong by turning to Christian Becksvoort. This Shaker furniture master has been cutting dovetails by hand for more than 40 years, and if there is a method out there, he has probably tried it. Here, in the first of two articles, he spills his secrets—starting with the tails. Learn how he lays them out, figures out the best spacing, marks them, saws exactly to the line and chops them accurately. When you’re done, you’ll have a set of perfect tail boards.
I ’ve been working wood for more than four decades now, and I’ve always considered hand-cut dovetails the bedrock of my furniture. Nothing else so clearly indicates strength, quality, and craftsmanship. Starting out, I tried making dovetails in a variety of ways—cutting the pins first, or the tails first; chopping out the waste between kerfs with a chisel, or sawing it away with a coping saw; using a Western saw or a Japanese one. Gradually, I developed a system that gave me strong, well-fitting, aesthetically pleasing joints at a very good clip. Over the years, I’ve continued to refine my method in subtle ways. Mine isn’t the only approach to dovetails, but I think you’ll find it straightforward, efficient, and relatively easy to master. I’m going to cover every last tip and trick in a way I haven’t done before, so this will be a two-part article.
Pins vs. tails
The first book I consulted on dovetails recommended cutting the pins first. So did my father, a European-trained cabinetmaker. So I did. But I soon tried cutting the tails first, and I found it both faster and more accurate. Cutting tails first, you can clamp the two tail boards together and cut them at once. You not only save time sawing, but you also increase accuracy, since the longer layout lines are easier to follow. I also think it’s easier to trace the tails onto the pin board than the other way around, since the tail board can be laid flat while you trace it. Do pins first, and you have to hold the pin board vertically to mark the tail board. The transfer also is more precise when you do tails first, since it is done with a knife into end grain, the most accurate means of marking wood.
Mapping out tails and pins
The number and size of pins and tails has a huge bearing on the strength of a dovetail joint. The strongest possible joint would be 50% tails and 50% pins, but that is aesthetically boring and resembles a machine-cut joint. Narrow pins are just more appealing. But don’t take it too far. If you spread six 1 ⁄8-in.-wide pins across a 10-in.- wide board, you’ll be removing almost 92% of the wood on the pin board and just 8% of the wood on the tail board. That sort of ratio may work on a delicate jewelry box or a small desk drawer, but on a cabinet or a large drawer, those joints will be far too weak.
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